An Echo of Embodiment

An essay on collapsing the body into memory

Benedicte McGowen

‘They perished in the seamless grass,
- No eye could find the place;’
XXXIX. – The Battle-field – Emily Dickinson

The body that is envisioned in memory is reproduced, performed as if it were still substantial, still able to be grasped. Like the configurations of brush strokes into image, memory gathers a series of impressions of the body in an attempt to visualise it. The traces of the body are collated in its absence. The body is mythologised as it is dislocated in the repeated utterance of memory. Despite being reproduced, made recurrent as an image held in memory, the body echoes its own absence through the impressions it leaves behind. Céline Sciamma’s film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) reimagines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, illustrating the body through characters’ dress as woven into memory. The shifting of the body into recollection is reproduced through the exchange between those who look and those who are looked at. When envisioned through the gaze of another, the body is dislocated from itself, with dress an echo of its corporeality.

The white dress is distinctive against the darkened door frame. Its lace ripples into indentations, cast not by the lamp, but by the moon. The fabric is slit in its reflection; its glow is lit like a forced show of teeth. As the sleeves’ corners seep into shadow, a rift forms between the forearm and their openings. Concealed in the cascades of fabric is their own shadow. This rift is an enclave, its outline webbed and delicate—cloth and shadow are both exit and entrance, their in-between translucent.

At the turn of a head, an exhalation of frozen breath, a chill inflamed, a grasp, fist clenched—

there is nothing but air, tinted cold.

“And now they were nearing the margin of the upper earth, when he, afraid that she might fail him,  eager for sight of her, turned back his longing eyes; and instantly she slipped into the depths. He stretched out his arms, eager to catch her or to feel her clasp; but, unhappy one, he clasped nothing but the yielding air.”
                                       - Metamorphoses Book X – Ovid

The artist Louise Bourgeois wrote: “You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself is a form of architecture.” This assemblage of ‘associations’ conjures an intimacy with its envisioned spectral presences. We formulate disembodied connections with others—the brush of a hand against sleeve; a misdirected glance; the warmth of another when you settle into a vacant seat; the smudge on a glass; the flinch when you hear a cough—rough, from behind you. You visualise the droplets from the expulsion sinking into your scalp; there is an uncertain fear in deliberating whether to turn around, to resolve their anonymity. These ‘associations’ are unstable, incorporeal impressions, a semblance of connection with another that is conjured, which the mind crafts into an elusive solidity. These impressions left by the body are crafted by memory into myth, visualised as a recurrent image – a substitute for the body that is no longer visible, that can only be envisioned by the traces it leaves behind. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the artist Marianne speculates on what motivates Orpheus’s turn towards Eurydice on earth’s brink. Following her friend and servant Sophie’s disbelief at his decision, Marianne remarks, “He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” This is disputed by Marianne’s lover, Héloïse, who comments, “Perhaps she was the one who said, ‘Turn around.’” She can not decide on whose voice, then, embodies the choice to turn.

In envisioning Héloïse in the darkened hallway, cloaked in a wedding gown and shadow, Marianne’s memory fragments Héloïse’s body. The dress is a substitute for remembrance of the woman. The dress alludes to another by performing as the wearer’s impression. It is a trace of the body that wears it, and disrupts Marianne’s remembrance, her performance of retaining Héloïse’s body through projecting her presence, by attempting to materialise her body within her artistic practice. In vanishing, the image, protectively cradled in Marianne’s gaze, slips into recollection. It is swallowed by the darkness, the abyss uneasily empty. Her memory is unable to latch onto a body, unable to obscure itself in another’s reflection.

“replica village reality effect the bodice sits over the body know this well already cf. ‘it mimics nature to filter’ old sponge chunks of wattle slumping on your cheek gathering a full body testimonial.”
                  alkaway – Ella O’Keefe

When looking at another in memory, there is an attempt to lodge yourself within the cavity of their actuality, to imagine them in conversation, once shared between you. But this fixation is disturbed in that conversation holds no solidity itself; a conversation can not be held by one person and the memory of another. By erratic gestures, uneven leveraging of tone, speech is broken in the desire to be interrupted, as if another’s acknowledgement could make the lightness of one’s memory heavy, sculpt it into a body, stable in its capacity to be held. Like an imagined conversation wavering into incoherence, Héloïse’s wedding dress is an impression of the body that has been lost; it interrupts its fixation into image, the capacity for her body to be reproduced, her presence to be materialised in memory. Her body cannot step through it; she is envisioned standing behind it; the crevice in its flowing fabric folds like a curtain, slumping heavily. Later, Marianne exits the house where she painted Héloïse, and when Héloïse demands she “Turn around,” the harsh daylight that slices through the half-opened door rinses the shadows from her sleeve’s opening—her body is crafted into the dress’s construction. Then the door closes and the shadows spill towards her once again, her arms outstretched, and like Eurydice after Orpheus “turned back his longing eyes; instantly she slipped into the depths”.

“What if the body does not signify?
Its wee lost cluster
starts to fade
the skin opening to the moisture of the season.”
               The Seam – Lisa Robertson

Eurydice slips not into the sunken realm of the afterlife, but through the pools of Orpheus’s eyes. She slides uneasily into memory, like Héloïse, she is instead gathered into recollection. In the eyes of those who witness their departure, Eurydice and Héloïse are recalled as images, materialisations of memory itself. In being looked at, they are detached from their corporeality, envisioned as images that can be reproduced as recompense for their imminent absence.

Nearing the film’s conclusion, Marianne positions her body protectively against her painting of Orpheus and Eurydice, the embroidered blue of her cloak imitating the cloth that pirouettes around Orpheus. His shoulders pull back, his extended arm bends at the elbow, as if hesitating, uncertain whether to reach forward or to turn away. Cloaked in white, Eurydice’s body drifts downwards, the folds of her dress already sinking into the shadows of the rocks below. Her hand curls forward or backward—her gesture neither farewell or warning, nor invitation.

“the skin imprinted with actual memories
skin as a media of production
‘epidermal memory’
traumatic ‘after effects’
sculptural dislocations.”
     Blueberries – Ellena Savage

The dress performs as a ceremony, a production that memory retells—it becomes a myth through its utterance. In Mythologies Roland Barthes writes that “Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message.”9 In applying Barthes’s interpretation of myth as a formation of meaning to the mythologising of the body, the body is formed from how its impression is expressed, the presence that is communicated through the traces it leaves behind. And yet, this attempt to exaggerate the body’s reflection so that it can be recounted is an utterance that is a haunted discourse; the dress, a skin shedding. The body is dislocated by memory’s performative possession. It is reproduced into an image that can be recounted by those who craft it. The weaving of the body into memory is a disturbance that hinders a complete image. By revealing the dress as substitute for the body, the gaze attempts to grasp Héloïse through recollection of something corporeal which is nonetheless only an impression, a trace, an echo wavered into being. In reproduction, materialised in paint, the represented body spills beneath the restoration of a situated frame. Like the webbed lace a child is swaddled in, the dress is baptismal, the utterance an announcement of rebirth, a paper gauze on a leaking wound—  soaked through.

As Marianne leaves the house, Héloïse commands that she “Turn around,” redirecting her glance. The edges of the stairs are blurred by a translucent veil. Against the wall, the shadows of  Héloïse’s stance are distorted into anonymity. It is uncertain if she has emerged from them or whether they have forced themselves into our vision, incensed at the motion that will follow, where she drifts backwards through the stairs, until they vanish against the weight of cloth, pale with thinness, then heavy and white. The frame is bordered in shadow, there are no edges, no corners. If you looked at her, her outlines would glimmer, as if lit with heat.

Everything shimmers as she sinks beneath.